Monday, 31 December 2018

Poetry Revisited: New Year's Eve by Mathilde Blind

New Year's Eve

(from Songs and Sonnets: 1893)

Another full-orbed year hath waned to-day,
And set in the irrevocable past,
And headlong whirled long Time's winged blast
My fluttering rose of youth is borne away:
Ah rose once crimson with the blood of May,
A honeyed haunt where bees would break their fast,
I watch thy scattering petals flee aghast,
And all the flickering rose-lights turning grey.

Poor fool of life! plagued ever with thy vain
Regrets and futile longings! were the years
Not cups o'erbrimming still with gall and tears?
Let go thy puny personal joy and pain!
If youth with all its brief hope disappears,
To deathless hope we must be born again.

Mathilde Blind (1841-1896)
German-born English poet, fiction writer,
biographer, essayist and literary critic

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

2018 Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge

The Summary

click on the image to go to the
challenge post on Escape With A Good Book
1 January – 31 December 2018

An Alphabet of Book Titles

There are only few days left until we start yet again into a new year which means that it’s time for me to take stock of the books presented here on Edith’s Miscellany during the past twelve months. This time I made the reviews my biweekly contribution to the 2018 Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge to which I signed up on Dollycas’s blog Escape With A Good Book in January, but in fact, I read four books more than the twenty-six required for My Alphabet of Book Titles. I must admit that choosing my reads for the challenge was a bit tricky with regard to certain letters like J, O, and above all X although I was lucky enough to be able to fit in quite some novels from my virtually infinite wish list, too. Almost by accident, I made the thirty books on my review list deal with recurrent themes.

As a matter of fact, I opened as well as closed the year 2018 on a somewhat artistic note although the books that I picked could hardly have been more different. The first read of this year was the Catalan novel The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Ángels Anglada that made me pass time with an as zealous as gifted fictional Jewish luthier in one of the cruellest concentration camps of Hitler’s Third Reich. In contrast, the last book on my review schedule was Clara and Mr. Tiffany by the late American writer Susan Vreeland who shed (partly fictional) light on the life of designer Clara Driscoll and the women in her team producing between 1892 and 1908 the famous leaded lampshades along with other artwork for Tiffany’s in New York and never getting the definitely deserved public recognition for it just because as women they weren’t accepted in the trade.

In 2018, I also reviewed other novels related to arts, notably Open City by Teju Cole in which a psychiatry fellow every so often ruminates expertly on a whole range of them starting with literature. Many of my reads included writers, all fictional ones except in Youth by J.M. Coetzee that is the author’s memoir. In The Door by Szabó Magda and Quicksand by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro successful fictional authors tell each the story of a woman they knew. Journalists in disconcerting times are the protagonists of Cyclops by Ranko Marinković, Train to Budapest by Dacia Maraini and The Earth and the Fullness Thereof by Peter Rosegger. And in Jalna by Mazo de la Roche, Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Atherton and in Island of Shattered Dreams by Chantal T. Spitz an ambitious poet, a journalist and a future chronicler of Tahitian family history respectively appear as more or less central characters.

Music-related like The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Ángels Anglada were the holocaust memoir The Pianist by Władysław Szpilman, a true story of survival in German-occupied Warsaw, Islands of the Dying Light by Rolf Lappert about a guitarist searching for his sister and Monique by Luísa Coelho as the late reply to a homosexual pianist who jilted his wife in the letter that was Marguerite Yourcenar’s debut novel. Apart from Clara and Mr. Tiffany, I reviewed two novels related to the visual arts. The Naked Lady by Vicente Blanco Ibáñez portrays a fictional Spanish painter of the late nineteenth century who dreams of producing a celebrated nude picture like Goya. The other is The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay surrounding a teenage girl who paints the bomb ruins of post-war London because after years in the French Resistance she feels more at home there than in her father’s pristine mansion.

Quite obviously, war was another recurring theme of my reads this year. The protagonist of X Out of Wonderland by David Allan Cates fights in various fictional wars that bear clear resemblance to the bloodiest carnages of the twentieth century. As for real wars, there are World War I reaching the Isonzo valley and Trieste in the final chapter of Zeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo and World War II sweeping over Croatia towards the end of Cyclops by Ranko Marinković as feared. The horrors of World War II come cruelly alive in The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat as well as, to some degree, in The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay and in Train to Budapest by Dacia Maraini. The latter also deals with the holocaust even though not in the same evocative way as The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Ángels Anglada and The Pianist by Władysław Szpilman.

Not at all at the centre of the novels, but nonetheless important for plot and character development are the civil wars appearing in The Letters Which Never Reached Him by Elisabeth von Heyking, My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard by Elizabeth Cooper, The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore, and Frog by Mo Yan. World War I plays a certain role in the past of the protagonists in Jalna by Mazo de la Roche and Vipers’ Tangle by François Mauriac as does World War II in The Door by Szabó Magda, in Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck and in Island of Shattered Dreams by Chantal T. Spitz. In the latter the Cold War, too, has noticeable impact on Tahiti’s history. As for The Road to Gandolfo by Robert Ludlum, it’s about a disgraced Vietnam War hero planning to kidnap the Pope to secure his living in peace times.

This leaves three novels that don’t quite fit in because they seem to be completely unrelated to both arts and wars. There is The Convent School by Barbara Fischmuth, an Austrian novel depicting a girl’s coming-of-age in the extremely conservative 1950s when World War II and the holocaust were a preferably repressed memory and not talked about as a result. Blue Jewellery by Katharina Winkler, on the other hand, is an Austrian novel about a woman born on a farm in the Anatolian mountains whose blindly jealous and always short-tempered husband beats her half to death more than once even after the family has long immigrated to Austria. In a way The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch, too, is a story of domestic violence given that her husband forced the protagonist to live in seclusion on her estate, but it’s rather the appropriate background for the Gothic novel than its theme.

Sticking to my resolution to Read the Nobels and to make regular contributions to the pretty dormant perpetual challenge of Aloi aka the Guiltless Reader, I reviewed this year four novels by laureates of the Nobel Prize in Literature, all of them male because I’ve run out of female ones who wrote prose fiction. I picked the classics The Home and the World by Indian author Rabindranath Tagore (winner of 1913) and Vipers’ Tangle by French writer François Mauriac (winner of 1952) along with the contemporary works Youth by South African-Australian author J.M. Coetzee (winner of 2003) and Frog by Chinese writer Mo Yan (winner of 2012). In addition, I presented the epistolary novel The Earth and the Fullness Thereof from the pen of Peter Rosegger, a triple Nobel nominee from Austria (1911, 1913 and 1918) whose copious literary and journalistic production is quite forgotten today in Austria and abroad.

Apart from Peter Rosegger’s just mentioned classic that was first released in 1900 and that illustrates somewhat realistically how backbreaking and worrisome the lives of most Austrian mountain farmers were at the time, I could link five more reviews to the 100 books on My Long Longlist of Epistolary Fiction. Only two of them – Monique by Luísa Coelho and Frog by Mo Yan – were contemporary works, while the others were all written and published long before, i.e. between 1903 and 1932. There were the novels The Letters Which Never Reached Him by Elisabeth von Heyking and My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard by Elizabeth Cooper that both combine fictional letters written around 1900 and evoke China in a time of unrest. The letters from the early 1930s in Vipers’ Tangle by François Mauriac are the legacy of a French bourgeois who always felt misunderstood and ignored by his greedy family.

And which of these thirty novels did I like best? It wouldn’t be like me at all to declare the lightest and most amusing reads on this list my favourites! In fact, for the first place I waver between a history of the siege of Malta during World War II from the point of view of a priest and the colonial history of Tahiti by example of three generations of a family, i.e. between The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat and Island of Shattered Dreams by Chantal T. Spitz. My close runner-up to these two is the holocaust novel The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Àngels Anglada. Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck and Blue Jewellery by Katharina Winkler were very much to my taste, too, not to forget the memoirs The Pianist by Władysław Szpilman and Youth by J.M. Coetzee. Very serious, if not sad reads all of them.

And here’s now the list of my 26+4 books reviewed in 2018 in alphabetical order by their titles including dates of first release and original titles if they aren’t English:

Monday, 24 December 2018

Poetry Revisited: The True Christmas by Henry Vaughan

The True Christmas

(from Thalia Rediviva: 1678)

So stick up ivy and the bays,
And then restore the heathen ways.
Green will remind you of the spring,
Though this great day denies the thing.
And mortifies the earth and all
But your wild revels, and loose hall.
Could you wear flowers, and roses strow
Blushing upon your breasts' warm snow,
That very dress your lightness will
Rebuke, and wither at the ill.
The brightness of this day we owe
Not unto music, masque, nor show:
Nor gallant furniture, nor plate;
But to the manger's mean estate.
His life while here, as well as birth,
Was but a check to pomp and mirth;
And all man's greatness you may see
Condemned by His humility.

     Then leave your open house and noise,
To welcome Him with holy joys,
And the poor shepherd's watchfulness:
Whom light and hymns from heaven did bless.
What you abound with, cast abroad
To those that want, and ease your load.
Who empties thus, will bring more in;
But riot is both loss and sin.
Dress finely what comes not in sight,
And then you keep your Christmas right.

Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)
Welsh metaphysical poet, author, translator and physician

Friday, 21 December 2018

Book Review: Zeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo it can be just as difficult to understand own behaviour and thoughts as it can be to figure out a complete stranger, not least because we all have traits in us that we like to overlook because we disapprove of them. Human nature wants it that these shadows of our characters terribly annoy us when we recognise them in others, and yet, we seldom become aware that they are actually ours, too. Sigmund Freud was one of the first to explore the unknown, repressed sides of the soul, but his work wasn’t really taken seriously at first. In Trieste of the mid-1910s, the wealthy protagonist of Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo consults a Freudian psychiatrist only because he is curious about this absurd new method and ready to try out anything to rid himself of his (imagined) ailments. Upon the psychiatrist’s request he wrote his memoirs until losing interest.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Back Reviews Reel: December 2015

My blogging year 2015 closed with reviews of four rather un-Christmassy books. In the classical spy novel The Angry Hills by Leon Uris set in World War II, a writer from San Francisco gets stuck in Greece with a sealed envelope to take to London, but German GESTAPO is after its contents. The theme of the contemporary novel Lake of Heaven by Ishimure Michiko are the long-term environmental and social effects of a hydroelectric power plant that relocated an entire Japanese village. Questions and material about a forgotten acquaintance force the writer protagonist of the contemporary novel So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood by Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, to face long-repressed memories of his childhood in France of the early 1950s. And the classic The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand centres on an American architect whose work is too innovative for his time.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Poetry Revisited: Tęsknota – Longing by Narcyza Żmichowska


(z książki Wybór poezyi: 1909)

Tęsknię, ach! tęsknię w zimie za kwiateczkiem,
A gdy mam z wiosną kwiatków łąkę całą,
To jeszcze tęsknię za konwalią białą,
A przy konwalii za śniegu płateczkiem.

Tęsknię, ach! tęsknię do mojego brata,
A kiedym z bratem, to tęsknię do ciebie,
A kiedym z. tobą, to do Boga w niebie,
A kiedym z Bogiem, znów tęsknię do świata.

I złe i dobre, i grzech mój i cnota,
I czego pragnę i czego się boj ę,
I myśli moje i modlitwy moje,
I życie całe – to tylko tęsknota.

Narcyza Żmichowska (1819-1876)
Polska powieściopisarka i poetka


(from Selected Poetry: 1909)

I yearn in winter for the flowers to blow,
And when they give me greeting in spring,
I long for the while bind-weeds blossoming,
And with its blossoming a flake of snow.

For brotherly companionship I yearn,
When with my brother – then for you I long.
With you the yearning for my God grows strong
With him my longings for the world return.

The good and evil that constrains my soul
hate’er I long for – whatsoe’er I fear,
My thoughts and impulses from year to year,
As my own life, are but a longing whole!

Narcissa Zmichowska (1819-1876)
Polish novelist and poet

Translation from Paul Soboleski:
Poets and Poetry of Poland. A Collection of
Polish Verse. Knight & Leonard, Printers,
Chicago 1881

Friday, 14 December 2018

Bookish Déjà-Vu: Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes

Books of truly great writers sometimes feel as if they were written just for the person who is reading them. They deeply touch our souls and drag us straight into the stories told, while the author remains in the background, virtually invisible although every word, every phrase, even every punctuation carries the unique imprint of her or his personality. Some writers even manage to make us feel close to them as if they were our soul mates. Reading their books may make us long to know them in person and to make friends with them beyond the realm of literature. Most of us content ourselves with reading biographical trivia about our favourite writers, probably their memoirs and biographies, too, but the retired protagonist of Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes, another one of my bookish déjà vu, sets out to fathom the character of the late Gustave Flaubert whom he adores.

Read my review»

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Share-a-Tea 2018 Reading Challenge

The Summary

click on the image to go to the
challenge post on Becky's Book Reviews
1 January – 31 December 2018

My Teatime Reads of the Year

December has arrived and there isn’t much left of 2018. Since these happen to be the busiest days of the year, I reckon that I won’t be able to add any more books to this list for Becky’s Share-a-Tea 2018 Reading Challenge before we start the new cycle of months. It’s true that every day I’m having tea – kukicha from Japan, Longjing from China, occasionally infusions of rooibos, of fruit blends, or of medicinal herbs to treat some ailment –, but now I prefer to experience it with all my senses much in the zen way. A book would only be a distraction, however much I use to enjoy reading in general.

In the end, I compiled the following list of twelve books that I read for the greater part with a pot of hot tea or infusion on the table by my side. I discussed most of them here on Edith’s Miscellany during the course of the year, but I also put on my list a novel by my Italian writer friend Marina Di Domenico, an Austrian classic that I’d like to present one day, and the French classic by Voltaire that served David Allan Cates as model for X Out of Wonderland that I reviewed.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Poetry Revisited: I Heard a Bird Sing by Oliver Herford

I Heard a Bird Sing

(from B.J. Thompson (ed): More Silver Pennies: 1938)

I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.

“We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,”
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.

Oliver Herford (1860-1935)
British-born American writer, artist, and illustrator

Friday, 7 December 2018

Book Review: Monique by Luísa Coelho
It can be a big shock to realise that it’s absolutely impossible to know any person inside out, not even closest relations like a spouse, children or parents, sometimes not even ourselves. Some people have learnt well to hide their nature because they fear – often rightly – to risk their status and dignity showing the world who they really are. The more shattering it is when they finally muster up the courage to come out. After fifty years the protagonist of Monique by Luísa Coelho answers to the letter that her husband wrote when he abandoned her and their son. Because the homosexual pianist could no longer bear living a lie and thus chose to defy social conventions, he turned her well-ordered and idealistic world completely upside down overnight. The French noblewoman looks back on her sheltered youth that didn’t prepare her for suddenly being on her own.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Poetry Revisited: The Wind Frost by Susanna Moodie

The Wind Frost

(from Enthusiasm and Other Poems: 1831)

I come o'er the hills of the frozen North,
To call to the battle thy armies forth:
I have swept the shores of the Baltic sea,
And the billows have felt my mastery;
They resisted my power, but strove in vain—
I have curbed their might with my crystal chain.
I roused the northwind in his stormy cave,
Together we passed over land and wave;
I sharpened his breath and gave him power
To crush and destroy every herb and flower;
He obeyed my voice, and is rending now
The sallow leaves from the groaning bough;
And he shouts aloud in his wild disdain,
As he whirls them down to the frozen plain:
Those beautiful leaves to which Spring gave birth
Are scattered abroad on the face of the earth.
I have visited many a creek and bay,
And curdled the streams in my stormy way;
I have chilled into hail the genial shower:—
All this I have done to increase thy power.

Susanna Moodie (1803-1885)
English-born Canadian poet and writer